I don’t know why, but it seems I am drawn to books about singular women that have a heightened contact with nature. I’ve just read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, about a female wizard that grew up in isolation, surrounded by fantastic beasts. I also have fond memories of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by the Polish Olga Tokarczuk – who won the 2018 Nobel Prize. And don’t get me started on The Door by the Hungarian Magda Szabó: while my review of that 1987 book was just short, it is one of my favorite reads ever – if you haven’t read it, I urge you to give it a try.
25 years older than The Door and 46 years younger than Drive Your Plow…, The Wall also has a central European origin: Austria. Marlen Haushofer wrote it in German, and Die Wand was translated in English in 1990 by Shaun Whiteside.
The story has a clear speculative premise: the female protagonist gets trapped in the Austrian mountains, as a suddenly appearing giant transparent wall closes her in, encircling the hunting lodge and the surrounding landscape – mountains, woods, an alm, a valley. It seems all animal life outside the wall is dead, and the woman is left to her own devices to survive – together with a cow, a dog, and a cat.
Those expecting a full-fledged sci-fi romp will be disappointed if they can’t appreciate anything outside genre. The origin of the wall is never explained, nor explored. It is something of a paradox that the story’s only speculative element is at the same time very dominant, yet hardly present. Haushofer’s choices make for a novel that hasn’t dated at all.
The Wall takes the form of a first-person account of the woman, who writes about her ordeals to keep madness at bay. The book has no chapters, and its 224 pages are one long sequence describing chronologically what happened, with the occasional foreshadowing rumination. The story’s focus is rather monomaniacal, and what happens is more or less predictable: she turns to a farming life, one that might offer her better chances of self-realization than her old life.
In a way, it is a miracle Haushofer managed to write an utterly compelling novel, rather than a drab, boring tale about someone planting potatoes again and again. The Wall sucked me in after 30 pages, and if I could, I would have finished it in one sitting. Continue reading